E.P. Thompson’s Desert Island Discs

Brodie Waddell

E.P. Thompson had, with one or two notable exceptions, rather boring taste in music.

Thompson has always been one of my favourite historians and I’ve been learning more about him recently as 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his Making of the English Working Class. We celebrated earlier with ‘The Future of History From Below’ event and I’ll be giving talks at Oxford (Nov. 29th) and at Birkbeck (Jan. 24th) on EPT’s legacy over the next few months.

William Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' (1789): Thompson's choice of reading material

William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1789): Thompson’s choice of reading material

So imagine my delight when I heard – via Jonathan Healey – that Thompson had been a guest on the famed BBC programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ and that the episode was freely available online. It was broadcast in 1991, just two years before his death at the age of 69, and his health was clearly not great, but he was still very intellectually sharp and irrepressibly politically engaged.

Thompson made a couple of inspired musical choices. For instance, I was struck by the raw power of Paul Robeson, the African-American communist actor and entertainer, belting out ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’, a song composed in the Börgermoor concentration camp in 1933. Even more interesting is Thompson’s second choice. He offers a beautiful recording of Rabindranath Tragore, the Bengali poet, singing a totally transformed version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It’s a wonderful piece of music and a wonderful encapsulation of Thompson’s close links to India. As he says in the interview, his father was a Research Fellow in Indian history at Oxford and former Methodist missionary, with close links to the Indian National Congress. Thompson recounts a childhood memory of Gandhi visiting his family home in the late 1920s or early 1930s:

‘I was just about the height of the sideboard. My main memory of Gandhi coming was the sideboard piled with all these fruits that we didn’t usually get. But there he was, and he was doing his daily stint of charkha – spinning – in the corner of our house, and it’s a very pleasant memory.’

In light of this, it is quite easy to see how Thompson’s ideas about poverty and protest emerge not only from his extra-mural teaching in the West Riding but also from his long and deep connections to South Asia.

However, almost as notable as these two striking choices of records is – to my mind – the ‘conservative’ nature of the rest of his choices. Despite being a political radical and an incredibly innovative historian, his other six records seem distinctly nostalgic and a bit earnest. There’s some eighteenth-century Irish harp music, an unbearably miserable rendition of a Yeats poem, two well-known classical pieces and an early English Baroque song. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about any of them – with the possible exception of Warlock’s composition – but they’re hardly the inspiring music one would hope for from a man like Thompson.

Where are the radical musicians of his own age, who often combined musical invention with a hard political edge?  Where are the Sex Pistols or the Specials or even the Rolling Stones? Was it really possible to be an activist in the 1960s and 70s without liking rock and roll?

The Specials (1979)

Sorely lacking from Thompson’s playlist.

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The intellectual value of gaming: Sid Meier’s Civilization, Oregon Trail and a streetview of London in the 1660s

Brodie Waddell

Some time ago I claimed that Eric Hobsbawm’s work was one the initial spurs that pushed me towards becoming a historian. However, it would be misleading to leave the impression that the long journey to my current profession was prompted solely or even primarily by such an academically reputable source. In fact, a larger part was probably played by a computer game: Sid Meier’s Civilization.

Look out, Romans! You’re about to get smashed by my English cavalry!

Look out, Romans! You’re about to get smashed by my English cavalry!

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Examining the question and questioning the exam

Brodie Waddell

Tyler Cowen, a well-known blogger and economist at George Mason University, once tried a rather unusual approach to examining.

[He] walked into class the day of the final exam and said, “Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points.” Then he walked out.

The result, according to Cowen?

I would say that the variance of the test scores probably increased! I don’t recall if I ever did that again for a whole exam but most of my exams do that for at least one question.  It’s the question where you learn the most about the student.

With exam season now upon us, I’ve been mulling this over. I suspect the Birkbeck exam scrutiny panel wouldn’t like Cowen’s approach, but I think it could have real value. It would at least be a nice change from the usual drudgery of wading through 10 or 20 or even 50 answers to exactly the same question.

More to the point, it led me to think about some of the more unusual exam questions I’ve encountered over the years. The only one that strikes me as unconventional is one from Cambridge a few years ago for the early modern British social and economic history survey module:

Were any women and men practising witchcraft in early modern England?

Although it might not seem especially strange to a historian of the period, I suspect that laypeople would be alarmed to hear that Cambridge students were being examined on the existence of witches.

Do you have a favourite (or hated) history exam question?

[Update (15/05/13): Kate Beaton, creator of ‘Hark, a vagrant’, offers an Elizabeth I quiz and a 1066 quiz that include such key questions as ‘Whither the Armada?’ and ‘How much Conquering is too much Conquering?’]

Monstrous readers

Brodie Waddell

In the wee hours of this morning, the Monster was viewed for the 10,000th time. Not a bad achievement for a blog dedicated to historical obscurities that only launched nine months ago. So, thanks to all of you for checking us out and thanks even more to our commenters who make posting so worthwhile!

Rather than fireworks, I thought it might be appropriate to celebrate by pulling back the curtain to reveal a few facts and statistics, following the example of Nick at Mercurius Politicus.

Since July 18th, 2012, we’ve had:

  • 53 posts
  • 10,004 views, around 40 per day
  • 74 different countries from which vistors have arrived
  • 260 views on a single day (September 2nd, thanks to a link to ‘A royal mistress’ from Two Nerdy History Girls)

We’ve received most of our readers via links from:

Perhaps most interesting are the search terms that have been used to find us. The most Young Sallypopular is, of course, ‘many-headed monster’. Interestingly, ‘archivist’ is in second place, perhaps thanks to the archival miscellany. Other unsurprising results include ‘what shall we do with a drunken sailor’, ‘civil war comic strip’ and ‘microhistory’. More unexpectedly, we also have a few readers who’ve found us by searching for ‘animated fireworks’, ‘hairy child’, ‘devil church’ and, most confusing of all, the nine clicks from ‘dirty mind of young sally’. I pity the poor saps who were looking for a local Satanist congregation or a 1973 ‘adult comedy’ only to find over-thought analysis of some early modern oddity.

Oh well, the more the merrier … Satanists and skin-flick fans, we welcome you!

Eating Animals: A Bit of History

Mark Hailwood

The recent horsemeat scandal – demonstrating just how crooked much of the meat industry is – has provided vegetarians with some potent new ammunition for those well-trodden dinner-table debates with their carnivorous cousins. But who can claim to have history on their side? Both parties offer up arguments based on our historical relationship with eating animals: meat-eaters often reach all the way back to our hunter-gatherer origins to suggest that quaffing down animal flesh is an inherent part of human nature; veggies refute the necessity of eating meat, pointing out that for most of human history the vast majority of the population have subsisted well enough on the peasant diet of bread, beer, cheese and vegetable stew, with meat being both an elite luxury and a rarity until the twentieth century.

Meat-munching caveman

Meat-munching caveman

Bruegel's Peasant Wedding: beer and broth all round! (via wikimedia commons)

Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding: beer and broth all round! (via wikimedia commons)

What do early modern English sources suggest about the history of eating animals? Elites were certainly capable of putting their meat away, and both quantity and variety were the order of the day. At the wedding of his daughter in 1582, Lord Burghley served up the following over three days of feasting: 6 veal calves, 26 deer, 15 pigs, 14 sheep, 16 lambs, 4 kids, 6 hares, 36 swans, 2 storks, 41 turkeys, over 370 poultry, 49 curlews, 135 mallards, 354 teals, 1,049 plovers, 124 knots, 280 stints, 109 pheasants, 277 partridges, 615 cocks, 485 snipe, 840 larks, 21 gulls, 71 rabbits, 23 pigeons and 2 sturgeon. No horse though.[1]

More surprisingly, Craig Muldrew has recently shown that even the poorer members of society were eating considerable amounts of meat—those involved in physical labour such as farm servants or agricultural labourers routinely consumed between 1 and 2 pounds of meat a day in the seventeenth century, the equivalent of a 16 ounce steak or two! [2] One mid-eighteenth century guide to running a farm advised that workers be served at breakfast with ‘minced Meat left the Day before’ with ‘a mixture of shred Onions and Parsley’; at lunch some ‘Broad Beans and Bacon or Pork one day, Beef with Carrots… another day’; and after some bread and cheese in the afternoon a dinner of ‘pickled Pork boiled hot with Broad Beans’.[3]

Hogarth's 'O the Roast Beef' (via wikimedia commons)

Hogarth’s ‘O the Roast Beef’ (via wikimedia commons)

The range of meats consumed by the ‘peasants’ was not as extensive as that served up at aristocratic feasts – the staples for the lower orders were pork, bacon, mutton, and most of all, beef. Indeed, the idea that beef was a particularly central foodstuff to both the English diet and identity dates from at least the sixteenth century. The physician Andrew Boorde wrote in 1542 that ‘Beefe is a good meate for an Englysshe man’ and ‘it doth make an Englysshe man stronge’, [4] and this association of the English with beef was well-entrenched by the time William Hogarth produced his 1748 painting, ‘O the Roast Beef of Old England’, which you can see depicted an English innkeeper lugging a huge hunk of beef past an envious looking French monk and a group of hungry-looking French soldiers eating a watery broth. Continue reading

‘For yee lead your liues in great ignorance’: Puritan Ponderings on the Patchwork of Popular Belief

Jonathan Willis

What exactly did people believe in post-reformation England?  That deceptively simple question really goes to the heart of much of the ‘post-revisionist’ scholarship currently being generated by historians of the English reformation.  Whether the object of study is angels, the landscape, music or death, one underlying questions remains the same: what does this thing, this practice, this shred of belief tell us about the broader tapestry of post-reformation religious identity?  Tapestry is a reasonable metaphor – I’m going to refrain on this occasion from extending it too far, and talking about warps and wefts – but patchwork 3388735664_a77e48d15a_zis a better one, the term coined by Tessa Watt in her brilliant book Cheap Print and Popular Piety.[1]  Once or twice when teaching this I have actually taken to drawing an imaginary ‘patchwork’ on the whiteboard.  So what do we call the hypothetical individual, who believes he will be justified by faith but also thinks that if he doesn’t confess his sins he could be condemned to hell for them?  What about his wife, who sings metrical psalms and hates the pope but believes God to be physically present in the consecrated host?  And however we define such individuals, can we also reasonably group them together?  It is possible to recognise their difference, and at the same time claim they are one and the same?

So tapestry is OK, patchwork is better: palimpsest works pretty well too.  Tangentially, I wonder why so much of the metaphorical language we use to describe identity formation (there’s another one) is rooted in the everyday materiality of art and craft.  Our ability to label individual belief in the past seems inversely proportional to the amount we know about it.  I suppose that is a fairly natural state of affairs.  Complexity breeds complexity, and moulds certainty into uncertainty.  But the job of the historian is (I think) not just to (re-)present the past, but also in some sense to try to make sense of it.  So, for AG Dickens the majority of people in Elizabethan England were recognisable as Protestants; for Eamon Duffy they were perhaps traumatised Catholics; for Christopher Haigh, stiff-necked Parish Anglicans; for Judith Maltby, committed Prayer-Book Protestants; for Watt, their culture was ‘distinctively post-Reformation, but not thoroughly Protestant’; while for Robert Delumeau, the people of early modern Europe were probably not even thoroughly Christian.

I was reminded of the value of taking a step back from all of this the other day, while reading a treatise by William Perkins that I had never looked at in detail before.  Perkins,Picture1 probably most famous as the author of A Golden Chaine, and more famous still for the infamous diagram of salvation contained within it, was a prolific writer of theological and devotional tracts: the work in question is his The foundation of Christian religion gathered into sixe principles.[2]  The work begins with an address ‘to all ignorant people that desire to be instructed’, followed by a list of almost 30 erroneous ‘common opinions’ which Perkins goes on, throughout the text, to correct.  Reproducing this list in its entirety would be a little excessive, but let me pick and talk about a dozen or so points which seem to me to be particularly pertinent to the present discussion:

1 That faith is a mans good meaning & his good seruing of God.

3 That yee haue beleeued in Christ euer since you could remember.

11 That it is an easier thing to please God than to please our neighbour.

12 That yee can keepe the Commandements, as well as God will giue you leaue.

Taken together, these points seem to express a frustration at the laity’s lack of intellectual engagement with the concept of faith.  That is not to say that their faith was not complex, but it was certainly not structured in the reflective, self-conscious way demanded by men such as Perkins.  Ironically, it seems that Puritan divines would have preferred a little less fiducia and a little more credentia from the laity: a faith based less in instinct, trust and emotion, and rather more in knowledge and intellectual acceptance.  The most difficult (and therefore the most important) aspect of religion from the laity’s perspective was in striving to live according to the principles of Christian charity: God, in whom they had faith from their earliest years, was a comforting constant.  And yet many of the laity had a strong sense that it was ultimately possible to be good and to do good things, and that such behaviour was pleasing to God.  Elsewhere, Perkins also complained about those who felt that by reciting the Decalogue they were praying, and serving God.

7 That, if anie be strangely visited, hee is either taken with a Planet, or bewitched.

This I think is a useful reminder that popular belief was not straightforwardly Christian: it contained a mixture of folklorish, traditional, pagan and other elements.  In this sense it was a true patchwork.

13 That it is the safest, to doo in Religion as most doo.

14 That merry ballads & bookes, as Scoggin, Beuis of Southampton, &c. are good to driue away time, & to remoue hart quames.

20 That drinking and bezeling in the alehouse or tauerne is good fellowship, & shews a good kinde nature.

Popular religion in the broadest sense was above all a communal activity, not an individual or even a family or household one.  The reformation did not fundamentally change this, except perhaps amongst those who were the most literate in the new religious language.  Even then, perhaps all it did was change the nature of the society with which those individuals of advanced faith sought to surround themselves.  Good religion was to be expressed in good fellowship and good cheer, as much in the alehouse as in the church, as much with a lusty ballad as a reverent Psalm.  ‘Hart quames’ for most people were to be banished with a merry ballad, not meditated upon as a means to repentance and the enrichment of a saving faith.

9 That a Preacher is a good man no longer than he is in the pulpet. They thinke all like themselues.

 18 That yee know al the Preacher can tell you: For he can say nothing, but that euery man is a sinner, that we must loue our neighbours as our selues, that euery man must bee saued by Christ: and all this ye can tell as well as he.

 17 That a man which commeth at no Sermons, may as welbeleeue, as he which heares all the sermons in the world.

 16 That a man neede not heare so many Sermons, except he could follow them better.

28 That a man need not haue any knowledg of religion, because he is not book learnd.

Finally, from the perspective of both the clergy and majority of the laity, a wide gulf existed between the two.  The reformation certainly contributed to a widespread anti-clericalism, that is to say, an opposition to the clerical pretensions of the new godly graduate clergy.  Complicated sermons were for educated people: the unlearned had nothing to gain thereby, because they already grasped the essentials of the faith: that all men were sinners, must be saved by Christ, and had an obligation to be charitable to their neighbours.  This was all well and good as far as it went, but of course for Perkins and others there were nuances, complexities, caveats and implications without which these broad truisms were worse than meaningless.  Such intellectual religion was unpopular in all senses: it was not for the great mass of people, who could profit more from each other’s good fellowship than a lengthy diatribe from the pulpit.

FoundationThe thing I’d like to draw from all this is that occasionally it is possible to lose sight of the wood for the trees.  While it can be extremely interesting to interrogate popular belief in minute theological and intellectual detail, it is not always the most productive path to follow (there are of course many, many exceptions).  For, by doing so, we can end up unwittingly forcing a resolutely anti-intellectual form of belief into a (for want of a better word) Perkinsian framework, and thereby doing it some violence, and just a little injustice.  We must remember that popular belief was both simple and complex, both patchwork and quilt.  It may be made up of innumerable diverse fragments, but it also had simple key priorities and a clearly defined basic form.  Each quilt may be unique, but quilts are also recognisably the same: a quilt is a quilt, and not a cushion cover, or a wall-hanging.  Identity is full of contradictions, but not all contradictions have to be resolved.  We each of us probably live with a series of competing and contradictory impulses and beliefs held in a kind of creative tension with one another, and the people of early modern England were probably no different.


[1] (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), p. 327.

[2] And it is to bee learned of ignorant people, that they may be fit to hear sermons with profit, and to receiue the Lords Supper with comfort (1591), STC2: 19710.